Charles Finney and Revivalism
Is revival a miraculous work of God or an enterprise of human ingenuity? In this brief clip, W. Robert Godfrey examines how Charles Finney’s influential teachings about religious revival embody the pragmatic thinking of the 19th century.
Finney concluded with his lawyer-like mind that we need a streamlined theology so that we can preach more effectively and get through to people. The important thing, Finney concluded as time developed, is getting through to people. Education is a waste of time. Dignity! I am sure he had plenty of Presbyterians come up to him and say, “You are not very dignified for a Presbyterian minister.” He said, “Dignity! Well, that is just the language of the devil.” Finney did not have use for anything that interfered, in his mind, with what would get through to people and change people and turn them around. That is why he became this very famous, dominant figure—not only because he was an effective preacher, but also because he became a pretty effective propagandist for his cause. He was not only a preacher, but he was a writer, and he would eventually write and publish his lectures on the revival of religion, which was a pretty big book of about 500 pages on how to have a revival and how to promote revivals. That came out in the 1830s and has been in print ever since. It never has gone out of print as a book that continues to be an influential book in American thought. What was surprising in Finney’s book on revivals is his contention that if you want a revival, you can have a revival. This was a brand-new way of thinking, completely at odds with the Great Awakening, completely at odds with the Calvinistic view of the revival of religion. Calvinists said that a revival is a miraculous supernatural work of the Holy Spirit coming at the will of God and not at the will of man. We can pray for it, we can work for it, we can wait for it, but we cannot cause it. And Finney comes along and says, “That is absolutely wrong. It is fundamentally wrong. We can have a revival whenever we faithfully use the means of grace that God has appointed. There is nothing miraculous and nothing supernatural about revival. A revival is scientific,” he said. Here we begin to see how the broad world of the 19th century in which he was operating began to influence him.